The Future of Religious Freedom and Tolerance in Palestine

As Israel begins to move its tanks to the outskirts of the Palestinian towns and villages it has decimated, many observers are asking, “What next?” If, as Israel contends, it has pretty much succeeded in eliminating all of the so-called terrorists, the next step in its campaign to reconfigure the conflict, having limited the people’s choices for leadership, and by extension their political options, might be to attempt to install its own choice for a peace partner as representative of the Palestinian people. The people, perhaps now totally subdued by the massive carnage in the territories, are likely in no mood to oppose anyone, and neither are they expected to be interested in participating in political dialogues that no doubt appear meaningless in the present situation. This is among the great crimes of Israel, since hope, and dreams of an independent state are not expected to survive this dark chapter in the Palestinian freedom movement. These aspirations, it se! ems, are to be replaced by fear, capitulation and apartheid, unless we continue the discussion and refuse to allow the passion for freedom to pass away, as did the people who passed away, trapped in the rubble, uncounted, unburied, their very existence denied.

As the extent of the carnage is uncovered in the territories, so too will be the real aims of the Israeli excursion. The shear brutality of this exercise seems to indicate that Israel believes that there was a great deal at stake, but not truly Israel’s survival, since there was no apparent force operating in Israel capable of eliminating its existence, and that is a fact. Suicide bombings, no doubt a grave concern in respect to Israeli security, do not have the ability to eliminate Israel, and it is doubtful that the intention of those who undertook such missions was to eliminate Israel. Never the less, anyone that would not cow tow to the occupation is likely dead by now, gunned down or blown up for being a suicide bomber. We accepted this rationale for the carnage, knowing full well that all of the suicide bombers were already dead, and that’s how they came to be known as “suicide bombers.” So we changed the name. Now they are “homicide bombers.” The name chang! e might work to withhold martyrdom, but it doesn’t change the fact that they are no longer alive, and so neither their capture or destruction can serve as justification, or rationale for a massive military incursion into Palestinian controlled lands, and mass murders. To those who argued that Israel was in pursuit of future or potential suicide bombers, its too bad that we did not demand a description of a potential, or future suicide bomber, then at least Israel could be held criminally culpable for the deaths of everyone dead that did not fit the description, and we would not be so perplexed by the moral ambiguity created by the suggestion that we have the right to kill what we fear might come into being, as in prophylactic violence.

No, Israel, like Serbia, Russia, and many others, even many among the Muslim and Arab states, and certain political factions within the United States, is after something else, and many suspect that this something else is actually the Islamic movement.

Interestingly, the Islamic movement is so hated by Israel, particularly by Shimon Peres, even though it was not the Islamic movement that employed rhetoric that would cause anyone to feel that it was out to destroy Israel. In numerous statements movement leaders made it clear that they sought a political solution to the crisis, even as Israel and others continued to call for their elimination. It was not the Islamic movement that called on the people of Palestine to push Israel into the sea, or to kill all Jews, even though Israel continued its policy of extra judicial killings of movement leaders, in an attempt to cull the movement. One reason for this culling being that the Islamic movement demanded that the Palestinian people’s right to exist, as well as their rights to an economy, security and self-defense be honored, as is Israel’s. We must remember that when the Islamic movement splintered off into two factions, one continued its commitment to providing soci! al services to the Palestinians, while the other became a military faction, acting in response to the Hebron massacre, where a New York immigrant to Israel, under the protective eyes of the IDF, entered a mosque and killed more than twenty Palestinians kneeled in prayer, shooting them from behind with an automatic weapon. At that time there was no other distinction for the Palestinian people, except civilians, who remain according to the Fourth Geneva Convention, a protected people. At the time of the Hebron massacre, there was no Palestinian police force, or militia. There was only Israel, who launched an investigation that of course exonerated the defense forces, saying they played no role in the massacre, even though the assailant entered the mosque carrying an automatic weapon unabated, and was never accosted by the IDF. Following this brutal massacre, Israeli settlers acquired permits from the Israeli government expressly for the purpose of erecting a monument to the ki! ller who carried out the massacres. Not until international public pressure was brought to bear, and the shear vulgarity of such an act exposed, did the government request that settlers remove the Goldstein memorial. Having been beaten to death by unarmed, yet surviving Palestinians, Goldstein was touted as a “martyr.”

It is absolute hypocrisy that allows Israel at this juncture in history, to claim that its repulsion for Palestinian suicide operations is guided by either its values, or ethics, since history, if we open our eyes and look back, tells the simple truth. Israel was the first to employ suicide as a strategy in their ongoing war of attrition against the Palestinians. They were the first to use martyrdom in an appeal to Jewish settlers to give their lives while carrying out acts of aggression against Palestinian people. They did this when they celebrated the murderer Baruch Goldstein, and made him a public hero and heralded him as a martyr.

Now, the future of Palestine stands before both the Palestinian people, and the world. The potential, the promise, the hope and the possibilities that are engendered by peace are still hoped for, yet to achieve these benefits of peace, other realities must first be accepted. Just as the secular nationalists of the PA had to recognize the right of Israel to exist, and the Israelis must recognize the right of the Palestinians to exist, both must recognize the right of the Islamic movement to exist. The movement, for its part must find a way to peacefully co-exist and cooperate with these two secularists entities, hoping that by so doing it will be allotted a space where from it can contribute its unique perspectives, and needed services, while continuing to play the role it has traditionally played as servants of the people in Palestine, the majority of whom are Muslim.

There are of course those who feel that Islamic movements are a threat to the secular liberal tradition that nation/states embraced and promoted for the better part of the 20th century, and so their presence is not to be tolerated. The truth is that secularism, by definition does not mean irreligious, or that the people of a polity be without religion. It simply means that Church and State should not mingle, suggesting that states should not adopt religious ideologies, and that religionists cannot be elected as heads of states for the sole purpose of propagating a certain or specific religious doctrine. Secularists subscribe to various religions, even if their religion of choice is paganism, or idol worship, and many secularists are pagans. When they become a majority in any polity, you cannot escape the trappings of their beliefs, which find their way into the rules and laws of states through the perspectives of those adherents who serve as lawmakers, judges, pub! lic representatives, etc.

Perhaps the greatest of the many modern intellectual hoaxes that have shaped our perspectives of religion, government, and the relationship between the two, is the idea that governments can be shaped void the influence of religion, or people’s belief in a power or numerous powers other than man’s power or influence. The acceptance of this hypothesis has caused us to protect ourselves very aggressively from the feared organized, and institutionalized monotheistic faiths. We have worked diligently over several centuries to prevent, or to expunge their influence on governments. In the process we were intellectually and spiritually disarmed, and failed to recognize and protect our states from paganism, which is a rivaling system of belief, no less influential or dangerous to the independence of states, democracy, or pluralism than any other system of belief, when that belief becomes fanatical or extreme.

Islamic movements may not be the only religious organizations and institutions that are being targeted for, demonization and subsequently elimination. The recent attack on the Catholic Church might also be considered an attack on monotheism, and institutionalized religion to make way for the further institutionalization of a pagan pantheon, similar to ancient Babylon’s. This suspicion is borne out in the method of attack, which appeared to focus on pedophilia, something that almost anyone can safely hate, when more than likely, what was actually being exposed was the predatory nature of some homosexuals. Why, it was asked, did the attackers of Catholicism, seek to convince the public that celibacy leads to predatory sexual behavior, when the Nuns of the Catholic Church are also celibate, yet were not implicated in the scandal? Why did the Catholic Church’s detractors not emphasize the fact that the majority, if not all of the reprehensible acts that were exposed, ! were acts of homosexuality, whether or not the victims were young boys or adolescent boys?

The Catholic Church was targeted just as public debates were warming up on human cloning, evolution vs. creationism in public school curriculums, and educational reform, including school vouchers that many charge violate the separation between church and state. According to People for the American Way, an organization that opposes school voucher programs, most families who opt out of the public educational system, go to religious schools, the majority of which are Catholic, while proponents argue that parents are choosing and not the state in such instances.

The point here is not that pagans, or secularists, or humanists should be eliminated, even though many who adhere to these belief systems have pursued the destruction of Islamic movements, nor is it suggested that people should seek to deny pagans their constitutional or religious rights. The point here is that various beliefs have taken hold in our societies that have reached the levels of influence of the monotheistic faiths, and some have even greater influence, yet, we do not hear secularists bemoaning this fact, nor do we hear secularists cautioning pagans to keep their religious ideals from influencing the character of nation/states when they cast their votes, nor do we hear secularists demanding that adherents to these belief systems shape their social and political activism, so as to avoid bringing their personal religious beliefs into the public arena. Nor are pagans denied opportunities to become heads of states. Yet, people of the monotheistic faiths ar! e routinely attacked, maligned and in the case of Islamic movements, condemned to elimination, simply due to the fact that they profess a system of belief founded upon the worship of one God, or monotheism.

Several months ago, the Washington Times published articles that equated the Islamic movement in Palestine with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qadea, and the Taliban. The Islamic movement was called an “extremist” movement, and its followers were accused of suicide bombings, other forms of terrorism, and plotting and calling for the destruction of Israel. These fictitious claims became the foundation for Israel’s claim to be fighting a war on terrorism similar to the war on terrorism being fought by the United States against al-Qadea and the Taliban. Pro-Israeli pundits even sought to tie the Islamic movement to Saddam Hussein. All of this helps us to understand that the struggle that has presently engulfed the world, is not necessarily a struggle between religious extremists and moderates, but might actually be a struggle between those who would like to eliminate, or at least diminish the influence of the traditional monotheistic faiths, since even though they have succeed! ed in pushing faith in God into the privacy of homes, churches, mosques and synagogues, they haven’t quite figured out what to do with the adherents of these faiths, those whose belief systems guide their judgments and perceptions to the extent that they oppose political agendas even though financially lucrative, that violate their moral sensitivities. Since it is fashionable to call for, and in fact participate in the elimination of Islamic movements, and Muslims, this can transpire with little or no fanfare, and if those who oppose monotheism had been successful in this most recent attack on religion, the same climate would have been created against Catholicism.

As we contemplate the future of Palestine, and especially the status of Jerusalem, we will have to dig very deeply into the mire of misinformation and propaganda that has come to surround these issues to extract the truth. Once we have accomplished this, we must depend on the knowledge and wisdom that experience has taught, recognizing that the struggle will not be resolved in the way that it began. The struggle for dominance between the various systems of belief that will take place in the future will not be struggles between the political and economic theories, and theorists of the past, i.e. communism vs. capitalism, democracy vs. totalitarianism, etc. The struggle that is confronting us today is the struggle of faith. In whom do you believe, one God or many?

If Palestine is to be a democratic secular state, or even a democratic republic, a space must exist at the table for the Islamic movement and its followers. We should not settle for an independent state that will rival the tradition of tyranny, and religious intolerance already firmly established in some of the nation/states of the Middle East and Muslim world. As the future of Palestine takes shape, we must all work to ensure that it not only becomes a secular liberal state if the people of Palestine so choose, but that it also becomes a pluralistic and diverse political, economic and social entity that embraces religious tolerance and diversity, and respects and extends religious freedoms even to the Muslim people who are involved in Islamic movement, a movement first initiated by the prophet Muhammad (sa) in an effort to teach the truths of monotheism and invite mankind to embrace these truths, while respecting the individuals right to choose their beliefs and ! to live according to that belief without fear of reprisal, public censure, or government persecution. The historic battles of the prophet (sa) have been casts by Islam’s detractors as wars against “infidels” and those who would not accept the Islamic faith. Nothing is farther from the truth. The prophet Muhammad (sa) challenged the systems of the ancient Arab world that were racists, economically corrupt, and repressive and oppressive of women. He was the first prophet to initiate inter-religious dialogues, and when his own people, the Arab Quraiysh persecuted the small band of people who first became Muslim, the prophet (sa) advised the Muslims to seek protection in Ethiopia, which was ruled at that time by a Christian monarch known as the Negus, whom the prophet Muhammad (sa) said was one of the best of human beings. The Islamic movement was initiated a movement for human freedom, and social, economic, and political reform. The authentic Islamic movements of today continue! in this tradition.

The writer is the Founder and President of the National Association of Muslim American Women.